Making Meals Easy - Part 1

Updated: Feb 3, 2019

by Katherine Andrew, MPH, RD


Does your New Year plan involve meal prep goals? We heard from some of you that it does, so one of our RGFx registered dietitians has provided some great advice on how to make meals easy!

1. Simplify.  Anyone else feel like we’ve made meal planning and nutrition WAY too complicated?  Most people come to me exhausted from looking for recipes and often give up before they even start cooking!  Instead of searching for complicated recipes, consider thinking of meals as rotating variations of the same building blocks.  


Most healthy, balanced meals are composed of the same basic building blocks*:

  • proteins (vegetarian, animal, or seafood)

  • carbohydrates (grains, root veggies, legumes, fruit)

  • non-starchy vegetables

  • fat

Using this framework, some simple healthy meals could include rotisserie chicken, steamed green beans and a baked sweet potato, chili with a side salad, charcuterie plate with raw veggies and crackers, or a few eggs fried with greens and a side of hash browns, and so on.  The combinations are endless and can look very different from meal to meal without getting overly complicated.


If you (like me) enjoy playing in the kitchen or your family prefers fancier dishes that require you to follow a complicated recipe, save those for the weekends when you have time to be more creative.  Or consider making a new sauce or dressing to transform a simple meal into a more exciting one (think Lemon Tahini dressing on roasted chicken and sweet potatoes).

*Your physical/mental health, performance goals, time of day, cravings, and many other factors will impact how much of each of those building blocks you choose to eat.  Consider working with a Registered Dietitian if you have not already found the right combination for you. It’s important to know yourself, your goals, and how to practically implement them in your life before jumping on a ‘diet bandwagon.’


2. Make a Meal Map.  I find that specific meal plans don’t work for most people.  Most (not all) people I work with prefer to have a more flexible plan.  A meal map involves assessing what you have already, then creating a list of what meal types you will make that week using what you have and what you will purchase.  


The key to success with a meal map is focusing on types of meals rather than specific meals.  I like to call these “Meal Templates.”  Not only does this save you time looking for recipes, but it also means you can shop for similar items each week.


Some Meal Templates that we use often are tacos, grain-based bowls, soups or stews, and sheet pan meals.  Others that work well are burgers, stir fry, and egg-based dishes. With your building blocks in mind, map out which meal templates you will use then adapt what is in that dish based on what’s on sale, what’s in the fridge, what you’re in the mood for, or the time of year.  For example, we have tacos most weeks but the protein varies between ground bison, beef, turkey, lentils/beans, or seafood. So it feels like a different meal each week. Similarly, I know I will prepare at least one sheet pan meal with various proteins so I like to have root veggies and a roastable green veggie (brussels sprouts or broccoli) on hand.  


Making a meal map can be as detailed or simple as you prefer. We are all different, and different things will work for each of us.


And for the record, I am not against using recipes every so often, especially as you are getting used to cooking more.  I post tons of recipes on my Instagram and Pinterest accounts for inspiration.  I would, however, encourage you to make at least one meal a week that does not require a recipe (even if that means fried eggs with a side salad). This will challenge you to try and taste and smell and adapt and experiment, and these skills will help maximize your time in the kitchen.


3. Stock your Fridge and your Pantry.  If your goal is to cook more at home, you have to have food to make that happen.  Too many people get caught up in the planning part and forget that having the ingredients on hand is the most important step.  It’s also critical to remind yourself that this is something that you will always have to do (sorry y’all, just being real here).  As long as you are cooking at home you will also have to shop for ingredients - so, find a way to make it happen regularly.


The good news is there are a ton of grocery delivery options out there now! And, you can actually save money by having groceries delivered instead of wandering the aisles at the store.  If you prefer to shop yourself, put it on your calendar so that it happens every week, just like you would a doctor’s appointment or a fitness class. Don’t forget to stock the pantry with items that you will use regularly in your meal templates (root veggies, rice/quinoa/oats, canned beans and tomatoes, olive oil, etc).  


4. Identify your winner meals.  We all know the feeling of spending hours preparing dinner only to have your family reject it at the table.  No fun! And trust me, it still happens plenty in our house. First, try not to be discouraged – it happens to us all!  Second, if you find a meal that everyone loves, make it often! Put a favorite recipe on rotation every 2-3 weeks and you will learn it by heart.  Variety is important but so is your sanity!


I like to always have what I call a “safe meal” in the rotation each week so that I know everyone is going to be excited about dinner. Typically, in our house, I plan this meal towards the end of the week when I know I’ll be tired and ready for a break.  


Likewise, especially if you have younger kids, it can be helpful to always have a “love it” food on the plate so that kids don’t feel overwhelmed by the meal.  It can be particularly helpful when you are making a new dish or meal to include an item that you know your kids will love instead of a plate full of all new things.  This is something I cover much more in depth with families, so reach out if you want to learn more!


Want more tips? Click for MAKING MEALS EASY - PART 2


Katherine Andrew is a dietitian in Raleigh, North Carolina and works with clients to create a unique plan based on personality, lifestyle, family and environment that is sustainable and nourishing.

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